November 19, 2012
The vast fresco cycle decorating the Sala or main hall of Padua's Palazzo della Ragione, the former seat of local government, is one of the most fascinating monuments in the city. The original series of frescoes depicting human life as regulated by the heavens was probably executed in 1306–1309 by Giotto (1266 or 7–1337) and his school. On 2 February 1420, a fire broke out in the building, damaging the roof and destroying these early works. The roof was replaced by a massive vault and the partitions that had divided the hall into small chambers were removed, creating one expansive space (illustrated above)—reportedly the largest vaulted room in fifteenth-century Europe. Giovanni Nicolò Miretto (fl. 1423–ca. 1440) and his assistants began repainting the Sala before 1425 and completed more than 244 scenes depicting the professions and emotions influenced by the planets ruling the months of January, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December. In about 1430, Stefano da Ferrara (fl. ca. 1430) joined Miretto and he and his team and were responsible for the 74 scenes corresponding to the months of February, March, and April. The cycle was completed by 1440.
The theme of this extensive series provided the artists with the opportunity to depict a range of contemporary occupations, enterprises, and interests. The fresco cycle therefore offers exceptional insight into European life in the early decades of the fifteenth century. For example, this detail from the section dedicated to the month of September, which is ruled by the planet Mercury and associated with the sign of Virgo. Traditionally, Mercury influences communication and commerce; the planet's domain is governed by reason, analysis, and all means of expression—the province of artists and scholars. Instead of relying on abstract imagery to convey these concepts, the artists portrayed a painter's studio and a schoolroom. In the scene above, a painter seated on a bench carefully adds the final details to a devotional image of the Madonna and Child while a young assistant grinding pigments on a stone slab looks over his shoulder to study the master at work. In the scene below, a teacher instructs his young pupil. The cycle includes additional scenes of fifteenth-century citizens at work and at play, from tanners stretching hides (scenes from the section dedicated to the month of January) to elegant aristocrats playing an early form of lawn tennis (an illustration of the month of August). The series is, in many ways, a panoply of Renaissance society.
While selections from this exceptional fresco cycle have been reproduced in various publications, the Photoarchive owns 215 photographs that document the entire series. This set of reproductions allows researchers to study the commission with close attention, enjoying scenes that rarely have been reproduced and discovering different aspects of the artists' magnificent achievement.
View of the main hall, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua (photographed by Mario Sansoni, before 1936).
Giovanni Miretto (fl. 1423–ca. 1440), The Month of September and and Occupations Influenced by the Planet Mercury: An Artist in His Studio and a Teacher with a Pupil, ca. 1425. Fresco, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua
Stefano da Ferrara (fl. ca. 1425–ca. 1440), Allegory of April, ca. 1430. Fresco, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua